Reflecting on 2020: an A to Z of the consumer-facing sector’s achievements this year

Normally, our final Weekend Edition of the year is a chance to reflect on the past 12 months, explore the year’s most notable trends and make predictions for the next period. This year, however, has been anything but normal.

Nobody needs another column lamenting the disruption our sectors have seen in 2020. Instead, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look back and celebrate the enormous efforts of our consumer-facing industries in this extraordinary year. And (just for fun!), we thought we’d do it as an A to Z…

A is for agility. Right across the consumer-facing sector, it has been truly remarkable to see the speed at which businesses have adapted in the face of Covid-19, pivoting at lighting speed to ways of trading and adapting to ever-changing and nationally-varied lockdown restrictions. The pace of digital acceleration has been a particular highlight this year. From retail businesses doubling down on ecommerce to restaurants forging digital partnerships with food delivery startups, 2020 has fast-tracked the online agenda and proved once and for all that digital transformation need not take years.

B is for the Board and for the Boards of the Future. Our sector’s non-executive directors have gone above and beyond to support their executives. Not only have NEDs increased formal engagement with more board meetings, but they have provided much-needed emotional and personal guidance to senior leaders. At a webinar hosted by MBS in May, Penny Hughes, portfolio NED and Chair at The Gym Group, told us: “Our executives are all at home, unable to directly communicate with or lead their teams, and they need our support. This has been a focus since the crisis.”

A particular cause for celebration this year has been the levels of corporate collaboration in our sectors. When leading supermarkets jointly penned a letter to consumers urging against stockpiling at the outset of the pandemic, it served as a symbol of unity and set the tone for the weeks and months to come. During the height of the crisis, for example, leaders from the sector’s biggest food businesses met virtually on a weekly basis to share insights and discuss how to help each other in keeping the nation fed. In technology, Apple and Google put aside their fierce rivalries to collaborate on Covid-19 test and trace apps. In an industry usually fraught with competition, it was amazing to see what can be achieved when businesses work together.

Working to feed the nation
In March, all the major retailers jointly penned a letter urging consumers against panic buying.

Crucially, this level of collaboration has not been limited to Covid responses. In November, Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose broke protocol to run their adverts back-to-back during two primetime slots on Channel 4, with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism. This powerful move is demonstrative of the palpable desire for progress on diversity coming from the consumer-facing sector after this year.

Sadly, Covid-19 looks set to have a long-term negative impact on diversity in our industries, as initiatives have been scaled back, budgets have been slashed and female and ethnic minority role models have exited businesses as part of mass restructures. However, against this gloomy backdrop, we have been bolstered by the individual and collective efforts of those in the consumer-facing sector, from Steve Murrells at the Co-op offering a powerful denouncement of racism following the murder of George Floyd, to leaders in hospitality, travel and leisure telling us that they had specifically excluded diverse role models from redundancy programmes.

Indeed, it has been an interesting year for the ESG agenda more broadly, and it has been exciting to see notions of responsible capitalism coming to the fore. A particular highlight for us at MBS was hearing Eric Collins, Chuka Umunna and Sapna Sood discussing the ESG agenda at an event we hosted with Signal AI: Time for a Great Corporate Reset? ESG in the time of Covid-19. They explored how the environmental element of ESG is now being considered in a new way as the economy reopens. In many cases, this could mark a new era of local, more sustainable production – which will have an incredible impact on the environment.

F is for feeding the nation. It has been truly remarkable to witness our food businesses rally together to keep the nation fed. In the face of never-before-seen disruption, the strength of our supply chains, the agility of our food businesses and the determination of our sector’s leaders meant that our supermarket shelves remained well-stocked throughout 2020. Our newspapers may have been full of war-time rhetoric this year – but thankfully we were far from being stuck in our homes with only Spam to fill us up.

Beyond this, the consumer-facing sector has played a vital role in ensuring that our most vulnerable communities have been able to access the food they need. Giving – in all its forms – has been a central part of this year, and it has been humbling to see businesses prioritising raising funds for organisations like FareShare even while fighting fires and ensuring business survival.

Individuals have also been immensely generous with their time. I don’t think anyone at MBS will forget the weekend early on in the pandemic that we were asked by NHS England to advise them on the appointment of a supply chain director, to lead the UK’s efforts on sourcing and distributing PPE. We were truly amazed when our sector’s most senior leaders – even at the height of a crisis – were willing to drop everything to offer their support in enabling us to make this appointment.

H is for HRD. What a year it’s been for human resources directors! Throughout this year, HRDs have been tasked with keeping colleagues healthy and mentally well, overseeing vast remote working networks and acting as a reminder to CEOs to remain focused on their people. Alongside all of these immensely important tasks to maintain positivity, HRDs are also having to balance retrenching, furloughing, delivering bad news of no increases or bonuses and even helping to decide whether people need to cut their salaries or work fewer days a week. The currency and impact of HRDs in our sectors have never been higher – and we are in awe of the collective achievements of the HR community over the last 12 months. H is also for the countless displays of humanity we’ve seen this year. Across the consumer-facing sector and beyond, businesses have responded to the needs of their employees and customers with compassion, understanding and empathy at front of mind.

I is for industry bodies. Where would we have been this year without the BRC to provide guidance for retailers? Or without IGD to facilitate crucial work to keep our vulnerable communities fed? Or without WiHTL to create a support network for the hospitality sector? Throughout 2020, trade bodies have played a central role in facilitating collaboration, providing a forum for business leaders to connect and mobilising critical action. In a recent conversation with BRC’s CEO Helen Dickinson, we heard that BRC membership has grown by 20% this year, speaking to the integral role that industry bodies play in their communities during times of crisis.

And speaking of bodies… J is for Joe Wicks, keeping us and our families fit from our living rooms during the first lockdown.

K is for key workers. When Edward Enninful chose Narguis Horsford, a train driver on the London Overground; Rachel Millar, a community midwife in east London; and Anisa Omar, an assistant at Waitrose in King’s Cross to be on the front of British Vogue in July, it spoke to sudden – and long overdue – appreciation for essential workers in the UK.

In 2020, our sector’s workforces have been at the forefront of the nation’s efforts against the pandemic. We are all indebted the delivery drivers, shop floor assistants, warehouse staff and agricultural workers (to name but a few) without whom the country would have ground to a halt. It has been wonderful to see businesses put measures in place to champion their key workers, such as Compass Group which awarded an additional bonus to its 7,800 colleagues supporting the NHS and Tesco which gave its workers a 10% payrise in March. Most recently, retailers including Asda, Waitrose and M&S have announced plans not to open their doors on Boxing Day, to allow employees to spend more time with their families over the Christmas period.

Lidl thanks its employees this Christmas
Lidl’s Christmas message includes the names of its 26,000 employees.

L is for leadership. This year, while much of the country was binging Netflix and perfecting their sourdough, CEOs and executives in consumer businesses were making business-critical decisions at pace, on a day-to-day basis, while working around the clock. In fact, we’ve seen many instances of exemplary leadership outside of the corporate sphere, with Marcus Rashford, the Premier League footballer turned activist, spearheading efforts against child poverty this year. (M is also for the mute button, which has provided plenty of embarrassment and relief over this year as we sat in front of our screens!)

N is for NHS. It feels like a lifetime ago when, every Thursday evening at 8pm, we would gather outside our homes to #ClapForOurCarers. While we were banging pots and pans on our doorsteps, businesses across the consumer-facing sector were rolling out initiatives to support health services and NHS workers. Examples include Kingfisher, which donated £1m worth of PPE to health services around the world; M&S, which provided pyjamas to be used as scrubs; and Camden Town Brewery, which rebranded its classic Camden Hells Lager to Camden Heroes, giving all proceeds from sales to charities supporting the NHS. It was also humbling to see all major supermarkets provide discounts for NHS workers and cafes and restaurants offer discounted food and drink, even in a time of crisis for the hospitality sector. (N is also for the ‘new normal’, a phrase that many of us will be glad to see the back of in 2021!)

O is for the one-way systems rolled out by supermarkets to ensure our safety. Along with Perspex screens, traffic light systems, virtual queuing offerings, app-based ordering, QR codes and sanitising stations, these new measures have become regular features of our lives.

Remote working has also become a regular feature. Over the last 12 months it has been humanising to gain an insight into the home lives of our colleagues and peers, from the multiple pets of a Chairman, to the teenage son of a CEO competing with his mother for broadband access. It is our hope that the sector will be able to utilise this newly heightened understanding of colleagues on a personal level to create more inclusive cultures of the future. Indeed, as the lack of flexible working policies has historically been a barrier to progression for women, the emergence of flexible and remote working as a viable practice could wave in a new era for those with responsibilities such as childcare.

S is for a sense of humour, which, thankfully, we have managed to retain throughout the crisis. Some MBS Group favourites include the Brighton pub which rebranded a craft ale as ‘Substantial Meal’ following the government’s recent tier 2 restrictions, BrewDog naming one of its products ‘Barnard Castle’ and businesses jumping on the latest TikTok trends.

BrewDog's Barnard Castle Eye Test ale
BrewDog produced a special edition Barnard Castle Eye Test beer, which sold out twice over.

U is (of course) for unprecedented. With the vaccine providing some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, let’s hope that this buzzword gets less air-time next year, and we return to just ‘precedented’ times.

Businesses across the board have renewed their focus on wellbeing this year. Conversations around mental health took on greater urgency in 2020, and it has been bolstering to see leaders engage in the topic and share their own experiences.

X is for X marks the spot. Everywhere you look, retailers, restaurants, bars and leisure sites have adapted to social distancing in often ingenious ways. Dishoom’s chain of Indian restaurants, for example, has integrated room dividers in the form of old wooden doors to encourage social distancing, and adapted its serving strategy to be Covid-safe in a seamless way – without losing the incredible atmosphere of its restaurants. Costa has developed what it is calling a ‘post-coronavirus’ format: a street-facing kiosk with socially-distanced seating and in-app ordering.

It has been inspiring to see our sectors rally together to support young people this year. Food businesses Arla and Kellogg’s made sure kids didn’t go hungry by providing breakfasts for schools, and Premier Foods sent food parcels and care packages to children’s hospices across the UK. In May, Dove created its Self-Esteem Project, which aims to help parents, care givers and guardians support young people’s mental wellbeing while in lockdown. Aside from food, the Farfetch-owned business Browns launched a ‘Family Affair’ initiative, designed to support young creatives during lockdown.

Z is for Zoom need we say more?

The Christmas decorations on London’s Carnaby Street.

For some light relief after a turbulent period, we have put together a game in the place of Christmas cards. Given most of us haven’t seen our colleagues for much of 2020, we are very pleased to invite you to join us in our virtual office for a game of Christmas Conga Challenge! You can find the link here.

Lastly, from all of us at The MBS Group, we wish you all the very best for the festive season, and a Happy New Year. Here’s to a brighter 2021! | | @TheMBSGroup

This is the final Weekend Edition of 2020. The final MBS News will be on Wednesday 23 December, with a Weatherman Christmas Special on Christmas Eve. 

The MBS News will return on 4th January, and the next weekend column will be on Saturday 9 January.